Because community action draws directly on the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves, it’s the most effective way to bring our faith to the majority of the population who have little or no experience of it. It does this by bringing the unconditional love of God to those in need at the local level, thereby witnessing directly to the relevance of the Christian way of life.
Community action therefore has the greatest potential to develop church growth and could contribute to reversing the long-standing chronic decline in church-going in England by countering the anonymity and commodification of human relationships.
This connection can be seen both on a long term and a more immediate perspective.
Frank Prochaska has studied carefully the link between social action and the church over the past century in his book ‘Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain’. In the chapter on ‘social welfare’ (page 96) he writes:
“The Church of England’s shifting views on social policy in the first half of the twentieth century, capped by its post-war approbation of the welfare state, played a more significant part in the decline of religious observance than might be imagined, if only because parish societies so often connected the citizenry, particularly women, to religious institutions. The decision to bow to the state was fashionable, perhaps irresistible, at the time; but it was to have unintended consequences. After all, it was the welfare role of religion that made it relevant to society. As long as the churches had an obvious social purpose, they retained an appeal to those with a sense of civic responsibility. In relegating Christianity’s historic charitable role to the sidelines, they estranged many traditional parishioners. What was the point of worshipping in Westminster Abbey when Jesus, now a socialist, had departed for Whitehall?”
This chart sets out the pattern of church-going over the past 80 years. Of course opinion will differ as to whether there is, in fact, a causal relationship between its decline and the expansion of the welfare state, as Prochaska suggests. However the development of the welfare state over the period and the decline in church-going do both coincide with phases of stronger secularism.
Meanwhile the Church Urban Fund has shown how the introduction of community action which responds to local need can result directly in church growth. Research presented to a fringe meeting at the General Synod in February 2012 showed clearly that, while most church leaders were clear that their work to serve the community was not done with the primary aim of growing the church, in all but one case their churches had grown substantially.
Relationship between meeting a number of local needs and church growth
When asked separately about how the size of their congregation had changed over the previous five years, it was clear that the churches doing most to serve those affected by poverty were more likely to be growing. Conversely, only a tenth of the most active churches had declined in numbers, compared with nearly a third of churches that were not doing anything to meet local needs (see table).
As might be expected, 85% claimed that the people benefiting from the work to alleviate poverty had contributed to growth. It was encouraging to note that around two-thirds agreed that men and young people joined their worshipping community as a result of the work to alleviate poverty, or around 1 in 5 of the total sample (see chart).
Those churches who claimed that their work to alleviate poverty had contributed to growing numbers worshipping, were then asked, ‘To what extent have each of these types of people joined your worshipping community?
Bringing young people back to the Church through community action
One of the most serious aspects of the decline is that relating to 15 to 19-year-olds, where there has been a loss of 68% in church-going between 1979 and 2005. There are thought to be just 140,000 young people in this age range who attend church out of a population of c. 3.5 million. Meanwhile just 24% of churches have activities which directly relate to this age group.
This is a key time of life, when engaging young people in community action could answer a real personal need: the table above from the CUF research shows how this can relate directly to their building contact with the local church. Clearly it would need careful coordination and support, but their involvement in this way could help explain the relevance for the Christian faith in their lives, and its message of unconditional love for others.